Villagers – The Art of Pretending to Swim

Irishman Conor O'Brien's journey to classic songwriter status continues. Might as well hand over those Ivor Novello Awards again now

Album Review by Alan O'Hare | 17 Sep 2018
Album title: The Art of Pretending to Swim
Artist: Villagers
Label: Domino
Release date: 21 Sep

There's something very comforting about the opening of Again, the first song on Villagers' fourth studio album, as a rapid acoustic guitar figure builds to a crescendo with Conor O'Brien singing directly into your ear. As the strings swell and a delicate one-fingered piano flourish sends shivers down your spine, lovers of earlier albums such as Becoming a Jackal and Darling Arithmetic will find themselves on familiar ground. But the tune turns taut around two-and-a-half-minutes in as electronic pulses, bird noise and an auto-tuned refrain begin to dominate. There, in among the stunning lyrics and widescreen melodies, stands what fills the glass at the heart of Villagers.

Lovers of those earlier acoustic-led affairs will find much to admire on The Art of Pretending to Swim: A Trick of the Light is perfect perpetual motion pop, Sweet Saviour a lovely lilting lament that O'Brien does better than anyone and Fool, a groove-led delight filled with beautiful noise and couplets of confusion. The latter, especially, hints at a soul music obsession that has never truly breached the surface of Villagers' records, but it's there this time in the falsetto harmonies, high-pitched strings and spaces found in between austere (self) production choices.

The Art of Pretending to Swim is an album that will reveal itself after a few listens. Initially, it sounds like a case of business as usual for Villagers, but spend time with the likes of Love Came With All It Brings (think a more relaxed Elvis Costello), the tense Real Go-Getter and the gorgeous six-minute McCartney-esque closer Ada ('You are the hole in which I hide'), and you'll hear the sound of an artist still busy being born.

Listen to: A Trick of the Light, Fool, Ada